Sofia-Based Startup Kanbanize Has Reinvented The Way We Visualize & Estimate Work

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CEO and co-founder of Kanbanize, Dimitar Karaivanov, shares the key points defining Kanbanize as a product, how to survive and thrive in a merciless market and why Kanban is the solution to many modern-day managerial issues.

Dimitar, describe Kanbanize in a few words.

Kanbanize is a SaaS platform for Lean Management that helps project managers and their teams deliver faster. We do this by applying Lean and Kanban principles to how work is being managed, which results in efficiency improvements as high as 700%.

What inspired you and your co-founders to create a project management platform? How did it all start?

Six years ago, I was working as a Development Manager for a big German company. With the arrival of the new Senior Vice President of R&D (Christoph Rohland, currently an investor in Kanbanize), the company started a transformation from pure Waterfall to Lean and Agile delivery methods. I was selected as a member of the process team that had the task to help implement this transformation.

Being involved in this initiative, while at the same time experimenting with Kanban in my teams, made it really easy for me to see that using a Kanban system not just with individual teams, but on a global level, would solve a lot of organizational problems and would make the entire company much more efficient.

I started searching for better tooling alternatives. Looking at the different offerings, it became evident that tooling support was years away from what I envisioned my organization needed.

That’s how Kanbanize was born – out of necessity. I was lucky to have Hristo, a childhood best friend of mine and now CTO and co-founder of the company, working on the first version.

These days we get to pick from a seemingly endless, ever-growing list of productivity and management tools. The competition appears to be fierce. What makes Kanbanize stand out of the crowd? What is the key differentiator?

Since the very beginning, we wanted Kanbanize to be extremely flexible and powerful, yet very simple to use. We’ve put a lot of effort and even more thought into making that happen. The result is an elegant piece of software that you can start using in 30 minutes.

As far as the feature set goes, we are focusing a lot on visual work breakdown (slicing projects into smaller work items), workflow automation (business rules) and flow-based analytics, which the traditional PM or even agile tools don’t have.

Why a project manager needs to consider internal team analytics and what problems can analytics solve in this use case?

Estimating task complexity is always dicey. Most PM tools track and visualize the relative speed with which tasks are completed, but still rely on human-made estimations for evaluating upcoming work. With Kanbanize, you can break down your projects into actionable items, “flow” them through the system with the help of our business rules and then automatically get data about how much time it took. By feeding this data into our smart analytics, we can predict the future for you, based on real statistical data, and not someone’s gut feeling.

Corporations are usually looking for fail-safe, reliable and widespread solutions. As an early stage / growing startup, how do you convince potential clients to put their trust in your product instead of an already well-established alternative?

This is always a tricky question to answer without delivering a lecture on Kanban, but I’ll try to be as concise as possible. Kanban has several core practices, such as visualization, management of flow, limiting work in progress and a few others. When you abide by these principles and practices from the very first day, you end up having a very different solution compared to a “Kanban afterthought”, as I usually call the Kanban implementations of the big players such as Jira, TFS, and others. To be a bit more concrete, I’d like to focus on two of the key areas where we excel and differ from our competition.

The first one is visualization combined with great UX. We invest a lot of effort to make things visual and easy to work with. We won’t hide work behind endless spreadsheets or list views. In Kanbanize everything is on the card, in front of your eyes, which is, of course, the first practice of Kanban – Visualization.

The second major area is analytics. You just don’t get flow analytics in traditional project management or even agile solutions. We built our software with specific metrics in mind (Cycle Time, Flow Efficiency), which are absent in almost any other software of this kind.

To cut a long story short, Kanbanize is Kanban software that takes care of helping teams implement real Kanban. What the big players have is some other software (scrum software, ticketing software, agile software, etc.) with some Kanban features.

In the productivity field, there can never be a “one size fits all” solution. Is Kanbanize as a product influenced by the needs and culture of your customers?

One thing that some companies seem to miss is that the cloud changed everything. We see a fundamental shift from “best of brand” to “best of breed”. Ten years ago Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle could lock a customer because they had the best operating system, hardware or database – this isn’t how the world works today. Today, companies can buy a SaaS product that provides a better solution to a concrete problem and integrate it with the existing technology. This has been one thing that has influenced our strategy a lot – providing ways for our customers to integrate Kanbanize with their existing application stack.

Are you using your own platform internally? How does that affect the viewpoints in the development team?

Oh, yes. We use it in each and every department of the company (R&D, Marketing, Sales, Support, Customer Success, Admin / Dev Ops). We create software that can be used in almost any team or department in a company, which, in a sense, Kanbanizes it. Unless we eat our own dog food, we would never ever succeed with this vision in the long run.

What’s the most considerable pivoting maneuver that the team has undertaken throughout the journey so far?

We were quite certain of the product vision when we started building it, so there hasn’t been any major pivot in terms of what it does. We’ve had a big pivot in our business model, though. We started with a freemium model, but later on switched to a standard 30-day free trial, which proved to work much better for us. It was not an easy thing to do because we had to break some promises, but sometimes you just have to do what you have to do. We have always been determined to provide more value to our customers and we switched gears in order to remain true to our beliefs.

What is the biggest challenge that the company has faced?

Maybe the fact that none of the founding members had any marketing or sales experience. We went to hell and back to master these skills and I wish we had someone to help us, but things are what they are. The good thing is that we are now in great shape and things are happening better than ever before.

What is the most memorable moment throughout the history of Kanbanize?

To me, this moment was definitely when a big Japanese car manufacturer became our customer. I’m not allowed to name who they are, but I’ll only say that they invented Lean in the first place. We value all our customers equally, but being able to sell Kanban software to the fathers of Lean was an amazing achievement and I will never forget it.

At what point did you decide to quit your job and fully focus on your dream?

I wanted to quit my job and focus on Kanbanize from the very start. However, in the beginning, I had to fund it from my salary and leaving the company that I worked for was not an option. One year later, we secured venture capital from Eleven, which made it possible to dedicate my time entirely to Kanbanize.

People often ask me if I would make the same choice if I had the chance to go back in time. I always say yes – this is the best decision I have made in my professional life.

Recently Atlassian announced the acquisition of Trello. Trello is considered the go-to Kanban board for users, seeking minimalism, while Atlassian’s Jira is on the other end of the spectrum – a feature-heavy, enterprise-grade application. What does all this mean to Kanbanize?

I’ll tell you something that might sound like a joke, but it’s not. When fellow entrepreneurs ask me what Kanbanize is, I always say: “Kanbanize is what you get 9 months after Jira and Trello have sex”. I’m very excited by this acquisition because this means we got it right in the very beginning. I’m pretty sure that the folks at Atlassian realize that Jira’s adoption is going to slow down in the future and they just had to spend almost half a billion to defend their position.

If they do things right, they will end up being stronger as a joint company than two separate ones, which might affect us in a negative way. However, when Atlassian are spending so much money in this space, then this is the best testament that this space is growing fast. It’s a great space to be in.

Do you imagine Kanbanize ever being acquired by a big player such as Atlassian? What are you currently considering as a viable exit strategy?

Quite frankly, yes. When Kanban becomes a commodity, probably a couple of years from now, we won’t have any other choice but to join forces with a bigger player. However, this is not something that we have set as a goal. Our only goal is to grow 100%+ each year, the rest will follow.

If there is one thing you could wish for in improving the startup ecosystem in Sofia, what would it be?

More capital and more expertise. The capital that you can raise locally is quite limiting, compared to what you get in London, Berlin or the US. When companies compete globally, then capital has to be competitive as well. If entrepreneurs have access to more capital, the expertise will build naturally and the entire community will grow stronger.

What piece of advice can you give to fellow founders for their startup?

Read. Work hard. Respect people. Never give up.



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